'I was a snob in terms of horror acting' - Tom Vaughan-Lawlor on new Irish critically acclaimed zombie film The Cured
Tom Vaughan-Lawlor tells Paul Whitington about his new-found respect for horror after starring in an Irish zombie movie, joining the multi-billion dollar Avengers franchise and having tea with Haughey's fixer, PJ Mara
Someday, Tom Vaughan- Lawlor will get to play the goodie, but not any time soon. He has two films coming out in the next week or so, and in both he's positively odious. In David Freyne's inventive Irish horror The Cured, which was released here yesterday, Vaughan-Lawlor is the charismatic leader of a group of social outcasts whom society has every reason to fear.
The film opens at the end of a terrifying viral outbreak that turned half the population into slavering zombies. An antidote has cured some of these predators, but as they were responsible for many deaths, no one knows quite what to do with them. A compromise arrangement has allowed some of 'the cured' to return to normal life under strict supervision, but Conor (Vaughan-Lawlor) is not satisfied, and mounts a terrorist campaign.
Ellen Page and Sam Keeley co-star, but it's Vaughan-Lawlor who dominates this lean chiller, playing a man entirely motivated by bitterness and a sense of thwarted entitlement.
"It's quite exhausting playing characters on the extremes like Conor," he tells me. "I've just finished doing a play in London, The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter, and in that I was a slightly unpleasant person as well, and it's quite tiring: their intensity can be draining."
He hesitated when sent the screenplay for The Cured, because he's not ordinarily a huge fan of horror. "It's not really a genre I enjoy," he admits, "especially that kind of horror. Before I read the script I thought oh God, doing a zombie film in Dublin, how's that going to work.
"But when I read it, I thought it was such a clever idea setting it at the end of an outbreak, rather than at the start, so it can deal with how you reintegrate people into society, and all the moral dilemmas around that.
"I was also a snob in terms of horror acting," he says, "and now I'm in total awe of people who work a lot in that genre, because of the intensity that's required, you're kind of at the extreme all the time. You also have to enter into it totally, because if you don't believe it, the audience isn't going to, you're just going to be found out if you don't buy into it. But David's scenes had real nuance and depth, and that made it really interesting to invest in that world. And I liked the way Piers McGrail shot it, it's got this great quality that makes Dublin look sort of sinister."
The other little film that Tom is currently part of is Avengers: Infinity War, a $400m-plus Marvel/Disney production that will explode into your local multiplex next week. Vaughan-Lawlor plays Ebony Maw, an extraterrestrial member of Thanos' Black Order, and a spider-like villain famed for his intelligence and powers of persuasion. What was it like working on something so big?
"It was a really, really exciting thing to be part of," he says, "but intimidating, for sure. The first day I was on set, there's all these A-list movie stars there, and it's the biggest budget film in the history of cinema, and you're going, okay, you can do one of two things here, you can either curl up in a ball and shrink, or you can just do your job. So in one way it's quite simple, you either deliver or go home.
"It sounds like a boring thing to say, but they were all really lovely. And the attention to detail, the standards: Marvel are so clever and they nail it so brilliantly because they get the right about of humour, and the right amount of gung-ho action." But the Marvel films aren't all about special effects and slick jokes.
"We were doing this scene," Tom explains, "and Joe and Anthony Russo, the directors, said, 'hang on, let's just talk about what's at stake in the scene, let's talk in just pure acting terms'. No matter how big a scene was in terms of pyrotechnics, they were always concerned with the truth and integrity of the scene, because they know that no matter how big something is, it's just not going to work if it's empty. So in a funny way, it did feel like the integrity of an arthouse or an independent film, just on a massive, massive scale."
He's been called the greatest Irish actor of his generation, but Vaughan-Lawlor wasn't initially keen on the idea of becoming one. Born in Dundrum, and raised in Rathgar, young Tom had no illusions about how tough a life it can be.
"My dad's an actor, and when we were growing up, we were always around actors, and the business, so theatre and acting was always in our house. I've been around it a long time, but the good thing about that is that you're not blind to the downsides of being an actor. It can be stressful."
Things were sometimes tough for his father. "You know, you're an actor with four kids, in the 80s, in Ireland, and it's like wow, there was nothing doing, you know.
"Of course we were very lucky as a family for various reasons, but I could see how hard it was for my dad and his peers, because there was no film industry in the country, I mean how lucky we are now in Ireland with the film industry and the TV industry we have.
"But that wasn't really the case in the 1980s, and you were relying mostly on theatre, really. So I was witness to that and I thought actually, I don't really fancy that, it's too stressful. Then I went to university and studied drama, and got pulled back in, for my sins."
After graduating from Trinity, he studied acting at RADA, and afterwards quickly made his name on the London stage with typically intense performances in productions of The Quare Fellow, The Lime Tree Bower, All My Sons and The Playboy of the Western World. He landed a couple of small film roles. Then came Nidge.
Played out over five unforgettable seasons between 2010 and 2014, Stuart Carolan's Love/Hate gripped a nation, pulled in a million viewers an episode and was successfully exported to Britain and America, where it was favourably compared to everything from The Sopranos to The Wire. Vaughan-Lawlor's character, Nidge Delaney, enjoyed a positively Shakespearean arc, rising within the ranks of a Dublin drug gang and evolving from affable hood to unhinged maniac. He must have been a joy to play.
"We'd all be very excited in January/February when we knew the scripts for the next season were coming. When you're given an opportunity like that or a character like that, you have to make sure you do it justice and that you don't, at the end of the job, look back and say I could have worked harder. But we all worked our arses off on that show, because we knew we had this amazing team, these amazing stories coming from Stuart, so we all went hell for leather. It was really great."
He empathised with viewers who were mildly outraged to discover that their favourite inner-city hoodlum was actually from Rathgar. "Sometimes, even me as an actor, you associate an actor with an accent or something, and then when you hear them and it's not their accent, even I find it jarring. So I can imagine people who aren't in the industry, it seems kind of a strange disconnect - you feel cheated!"
Tom's work on stage, film and TV since the end of Love/Hate has established him as an extraordinarily versatile and accomplished character actor. He played an exasperated suitor opposite Emily Beecham in Peter Mackie Burns' fine indie drama Daphne, and a wily IRA prisoner in Stephen Burke's historical drama Maze. And on the small screen, he's played everyone from Pádraig Pearse (Trial of the Century) to the legendary political fixer PJ Mara opposite Aidan Gillen's Haughey in Charlie.
"PJ was a fascinating character to play," he tells me, "and I got to meet him as well, which was brilliant."
Mara died in 2016. "He was really sweet, I went to his house and we had cake and tea, and I was quite nervous, cautious about what I should ask him. So I said, 'do you mind if I ask you certain questions?', and he was like 'I don't give a damn what you ask me'. So we had a great time, and I was very lucky to have been given that insight."